March 9, 2014
Last month, Virginia-based strategy firm Caerus Associates released a report using mapping technology and four months of survey data to shed light on the political, security and humanitarian dynamics in opposition- and regime-controlled neighborhoods across Aleppo, Syria’s largest—and now deadliest—city.
The study, which Caerus carried out between September 2013 and January 2014, relied on local research teams to monitor conditions such as checkpoints, bakery closures and bread prices, and to conduct a monthly survey of 561 Aleppans on security, humanitarian conditions, political allegiances and governance.
Among Caerus’s most striking conclusions were that the Syrian government faces deteriorating public support even in areas under its control; that 40 percent of Aleppans believe that no group or party represents them; and that the Syrian government may be restricting basic services to opposition-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, which typically receive six or fewer hours of electricity per day.
“A lot of the dynamics of Syria’s conflict play out in and around Aleppo,” says Nate Rosenblatt, a senior analyst with Caerus’s Middle East and North Africa team. One of those dynamics is the rise of the Islamic Front in Aleppo, Rosenblatt tells Syria Direct’s Alex Simon that as small militias within Syria’s armed opposition have started “coalescing more and more” to form larger, stronger coalitions.
Q: What was the impetus behind this study?
We tried to think about what were some important things that people knew in Syria that they had trouble communicating to the international community. The whole model of this project was, let’s give communities the opportunity to help people understand things they already know. The community knows things like who’s in charge of their neighborhood—they know a whole lot of really important information, the challenge is to give them a platform to make that known to others. So we tried to do that in a systematic way.
The rebel-held Sukari district in downtown Aleppo, March 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Halabi.
Q: What, for you, was the project’s most surprising finding?
With the exception of one neighborhood, the relationship between areas that had over 10 hours of electricity [per day] to neighborhoods that were regime-controlled was one to one—exactly one to one. That was pretty surprising to me. You would think that those types of things would be a little more blurry. But the difference between regime-held areas rebel held areas, most of which get 6 or fewer hours; the starkness of that difference was pretty surprising.
We don’t have definitive, smoking-gun proof of this, but a lot of these results indicate that the regime is actively denying basic services to opposition-controlled areas. I don’t think that gets enough reporting, and I think that’s significant. So the question is, can we start building structured, verifiable information streams that are geo-located like this so that we can start holding regimes like this accountable.
Right now a lot of accountability mechanisms are done through individual witness reporting, and I think we need to think about ways that we can back that up with real statistics.
Q: In the study, you refer to Aleppo as a “microcosm of Syria’s conflict.” Can you elaborate on this idea, and on the extent to which you feel Aleppo is representative of the Syrian conflict broadly speaking?
Syria is such a hyper-local conflict that what happens in Damascus is very different from what happens in Deir e-Zor, from Latakia, from Raqqa. But I think the reason we made that point was that we felt like Aleppo was such an important location, not just because it was large but because a lot of the dynamics of Syria’s conflict play out in and around Aleppo. And the fact that it’s heavily divided—you couldn’t do this kind of study in Damascus, because the center of the city is regime-controlled; it would look like a doughnut, whereas Aleppo is cut in two down the middle.
Our perspective that we think a lot of interesting dynamics play out in Aleppo, rather than that we think a lot of the findings can be applied to Syria writ large. That said, I think there were some findings that we got in Aleppo that corroborate some of the trends we’ve seen in other research in Syria, particularly northern Syria.
Q: In the study, you touch on the transfer of power from Liwa a-Tawhid to the Islamic Front after the latter was formed in late November. What’s your sense of how integrated Islamic Front member groups are in Aleppo?
The Islamic Front was formed in late November of last year, but as you can see in the report, we do still make the distinction between the Islamic Front and Liwa a-Tawheed in terms of where they’re located, where we think they’re stronger and stuff like that. We didn’t feel like the formation of the Islamic Front—its command and control structure and cohesiveness—was such that we could comfortably conflate the groups into one by early January. I think they’ve become more cohesive over time, especially because they have several common enemies, but at the same time it’s very fluid. If you compare it to other coalitions, it’s got more cohesiveness, but I think it still has a long way to go. But it does follow the trend that we’re seeing in northern Syria, which is that opposition groups are coalescing more and more.
Q: The final section of the study deals with questions of local governance in Aleppo. What’s your take on the capacity of local governing bodies in opposition-held areas, and on the international community’s efforts to build these groups up?
We’ve been following local governance capabilities in Aleppo for over a year, and I would say that they’ve definitely grown and matured. They’ve developed some really visible and well-appreciated programming in Aleppo city, but they’re inherently limited by the fact that they work in a war zone, and that manifests itself in a couple of ways.
The first is, these guys aren’t affiliated with any armed group, so they don’t have the sponsorship or protection of a large armed group. The way that that manifests itself, for example: There’s a lot of support in local councils for what they’re calling “civil defense.” And one of the things that those guys do is get equipment from the international community to help dig through rubble to rescue people who are trapped in collapsed buildings that have been bombed by the regime, which is a really important, very visible, very well appreciated responsibility, and they’re doing a really good job of it. The problem is that a lot of armed groups also want this kind of machinery and they want the credit for doing this kind of work. So there are reports of armed groups stealing that equipment, and the local council really doesn’t have a lot that it can do to prevent that.
The other thing that’s limiting for their work is that their travel is really limited. Aleppo has two ring roads, and then a lot of supply routes into the city. The vast majority of the most restrictive checkpoints are deployed along those [heavily trafficked] roads. This makes it really hard for any council who wants to represent opposition-held Aleppo to be able to travel around the city freely enough so that they can exert their—not necessarily authority—but service provision, assistance, and things like that.
So, given those constraints, I think [local governance] has nonetheless improved. I think the international community has done a good job of working with them on campaigns like working to dig people out from buildings, they’ve done a lot of sanitation work, public health campaigns, garbage pickup, vaccination… Those things are really valuable. And if the international community is committed to Syria insofar as it wants to just help people endure the conflict, then I think this has been effective. But there are enormous limitations to the long-term viability of something like that.
Q: A large portion of this study relied on the data from a monthly survey of 561 respondents in areas across Aleppo. How successful do you feel you were in eliciting candid responses from Aleppans who might be afraid to express their opinions in such a dangerous city?
That’s always the challenge you face doing surveys in the Middle East writ large. I think there’s very little incentive for people to answer honestly; there’s a very well-practiced art of being suspicious of people with clipboards asking questions in countries that have been under authoritarian rule for so long. So this stuff is not only suspicious in a warzone, it’s problematic in the Middle East in general, and unfamiliar to residents who are used to people asking questions being affiliated with the regime.
So, what are the ways to mitigate some of those challenges? The first would be, doing these interviews in person. There’s a lot of surveys that are done over the internet, over Facebook. Not only are you limiting yourself tremendously in terms of the sample of people who will respond, you’re also losing the human-to-human contact that might help mitigate a person’s suspicions of foul play. I think we estimated that about 20 percent of our survey was not done in person, and that was really just due to the fact that some of these neighborhoods were block-to-block conflict, and it was too difficult for these guys to travel.
The other was, we tried to make sure these guys were local to the areas where they were doing the research. If not that they grew up in the areas, at least were based in those areas for a while. So the idea of that was to develop a rapport with the respondents. We tried to do a panel of respondent data over four months, so the idea was to build a relationship, an understanding that the work was being done for humanitarian, beneficial outcomes and not manipulative ones. So hopefully over time there was incentive for respondents to respond truthfully.
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